Typically, properly executed arbitration agreements, even as boilerplate in a form agreement, are strictly enforced. That said, there is an interesting 2017 First Department case that allows a party to avoid arbitration due to the cost of doing so.
In this case, as part of his employment, an employee agreed to arbitrate any disputes with his employer before the AAA in Florida. Doing so would require the employee to pay half of the arbitration costs, including the fees charged by the arbitrators, and administrative costs. The claims of the employee were as part of a class, where claims of late payment of wages were made, and recovery would include an award of statutory attorneys’ fees. In response to the employer’s motion to compel arbitration, the employee argued that “he had not agreed to arbitrate Labor Law claims, that any such agreement would be against public policy, and that, based on his limited financial means, as detailed in a supporting affidavit, the fee splitting and venue provisions of the agreement render arbitration financially prohibitive.”
The First Department reaffirmed New York’s strong public policy of favoring arbitrations (where agreed to) and that courts interfere as little as possible in that process and resulting award. “As a general matter, therefore, a clear and unmistakable agreement to arbitrate statutory wage claims is not unenforceable as against public policy.” That said, the court recognized the competing public policy argument that the employee could not afford to travel to Florida and participate in the AAA proceeding and that forcing him to do so would “preclude him from pursuing his claims.” The court referred the matter back to the trial court for an accounting of the employee’s income “and assets,” and the cost to participate in the arbitration. The court did not acquit the employee from the arbitration, only directed the trial court to determine if arbitrating in New York at the employer’s expense would obviate the employee’s concerns. The court also allowed the trial court to consider how the attorneys’ fees provision would impact the employee’s ability to participate in the arbitration. The court did not directly address the issue of whether the employee’s inability to pay the AAA expenses would free him from arbitration completely.
This court, while relying on a 2010 Court of Appeals case, did not follow the long-standing principle of enforcing arbitration agreements, presumably because the court held that the public policy argument in denying someone’s day in court was at least as strong as the policies in enforcing arbitration agreements. This begs the question, though. Will other situations involving public policy allow a party to avoid an executed contract?